Kerala mulls tourism township in ecologically fragile Idukki with UAE funds

Gadgil and Kasthurirangan committees have warned against unregulated constructions in the hilly district, already dogged by frequent landslips, landslides and floods.

ByK A Shaji

Published Jan 08, 2024 | 11:00 AMUpdatedJan 08, 2024 | 11:06 AM

The Munnar hills

The Kerala government is planning a tourism township either at Munnar or Vagamon in the hilly district of Idukki with the financial backing of the UAE government,

Though the plan looks innocuous, and the local community is welcoming it, the district is ecologically fragile and the expert committees led by Madhav Gadgil and K Kasthurirangan have warned against unregulated constructions in the region.

The hilly district is highly vulnerable to natural hazards and is categorised as one of the topmost climate change hotspots in the entire country.

The local community is upbeat about the township plan because of the possible infrastructure growth it proposes.

The district is also highly vulnerable to frequent landslides, landslips, and flash floods, apart from overflowing rivers and reservoirs.

Moreover, both Vagamon and Munnar are now bursting at the seams because of the huge rush of tourists, who want an escape from the heat and din of cities.

If implemented, the township would adversely affect nature, besides posing the threat of encroachment of forests by vested interests, something that has already been dogging the district.

Indiscriminate construction on the mountains and valleys has played a pivotal role in aggravating the environmental crisis in Idukki, and it will be accelerated once the township construction begins.

Also Read: LDF calls for Idukki hartal as Governor Khan refuses to clear Land Bill

Plan still unclear

According to sources in the state Tourism Department, negotiations will decide whether the UAE government will be directly involved in the project, or whether it will only facilitate the participation of private companies.

A tourism location in Vagamon. Photo: K A Shaji

A tourism location in Vagamon. Photo: K A Shaji

However, the Tourism Department has received assurance in this regard and efforts are being made to make the township a reality.

Asked about the concerns over a tourism township coming up in the Idukki district’s environmentally fragile areas that could lead to further ecological devastation, officials told South First the project would be implemented only after obtaining all clearances.

They said only the political leadership could respond to environmentalists’ concerns. Gadgil and Kasturirangan’s reports have explicitly discouraged such tourism and construction initiatives in the Western Ghats.

The state government made the tourism township proposal on 9 November, 2023, and on 13 December, the Ttourism Department communicated with the Revenue Department in the matter.

According to a communication by the principal secretary (revenue) to the land revenue commissioner, the government has directed the land revenue commissioner to find suitable land in Vagamon or Munnar for the project.

On 18 December, the chief secretary convened a high-level meeting of senior officials from the Revenue and Tourism Departments.

“A report has to be furnished to the government as soon as possible, after examining whether suitable land is available in Vagamon or Munnar, in Idukki, for the tourism township project proposed by the UAE government,” the principal secretary (revenue)’s letter said.

The UAE government’s exact role is unclear since the matter has yet to be placed in the public domain.

“The proposal was made when the UAE ambassador met the chief minister in November last. When the government gets a major investment proposal, why keep it under wraps? The government is looking forward to an eco-friendly project since these two identified places are ecologically fragile areas,” a senior government official told South First on condition of anonymity.

Also Read: Kerala STF cautious as CPI(M) and CPI spar over evicting Idukki encroachers

Centre’s stand will be decisive

In the case of the UAE’s direct involvement, the Centre’s stand will be decisive, as a sovereign government acquiring property in India can be routed only through diplomatic channels.

Indiscriminate encroachments and illegal constructions are threatening to destroy Munnar. (South First)

Indiscriminate encroachments and illegal constructions are threatening to destroy Munnar. (South First)

If the project is a private initiative, parallels will be drawn to Kochi SmartCity, initially presented by the then UDF government as an information technology initiative that later became a UAE-based private company’s integrated township at Kakkanad.

Real estate development of this magnitude in the name of tourism envisaged in Munnar and Vagamon goes against the recommendations of the Western Ghats Ecology Expert Panel (Gadgil Committee) and the Kasturirangan Report, local environmental activist MJ Babu said.

On the other hand, the government had recently framed detailed guidelines for constituting a Munnar Hill Area Authority to ensure sustainable development with uniformity, take appropriate decisions on encroachments, and protect the Munnar area’s environmental uniqueness.

In the case of Vagamon, even basic land records are unavailable — the basic tax register (BTR) and field measurement book (FMB), which will have concrete information on land holdings and the exact extent and location of government land and porambokes (unused revenue land) in Vagamon village.

Meanwhile, there is speculation among higher officials that the project is merely a benami arrangement by private individuals or companies. Despite being proposed for implementation in an ecologically fragile zone, the state government will need to grant several concessions for the project.

Some earlier projects in the state that initially appeared to have financial support from the UAE government later turned out to have private backers.